An FBI agent racing against time to catch a grisly serial killer before he strikes again seeks help from an even more cunning and brutal killer who plays mind games with his interviewer from behind bars.
This adaptation of a Thomas Harris best seller took a bit to gain traction but has gained acclaim as the best film in its series. Not only did it introduce moviegoers to Dr. Hannibal Lecter, it influenced a new wave of police procedurals and crime dramas that run the gamut from The X-Files to CSI.
If that description made you think of Silence of the Lambs, think again.
The movie that first brought Hannibal the Cannibal to the silver screen, and which many critics deem superior to its Oscar-winning sequel, is director Michael Mann’s 1986 stylistic tour de force Manhunter.
Manhunter‘s plot doesn’t need much explanation, since Thomas Harris novels all tell pretty much the same story anyway, and odds are you’re already familiar with the 2002 remake Red Dragon.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Red Dragon renders Manhunter obsolete. As is the case with most remakes, the original is superior. Michael Mann pushes his version over the top with his mastery of the visual language of film. Using color to establish mood – and even character – while cramming every frame with more chic 80s style than a whole episode of Miami Vice, Mann delivers a gorgeously photographed thriller that’s as much a product of its time as ahead of its time.
If you’re unfamiliar with this movie, its remake, or the novel both are based on, the rundown is simple. Retired profiler Will Graham returns to help his FBI bosses nab a psycho dubbed the “Tooth Fairy” who has a nasty habit of massacring whole families every full moon. When even Graham’s near-preternatural intuition leads to a dead end, he reluctantly turns to another killer he himself put away – Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
Portrayed by Scottish actor Brian Cox, this Lecter remains intriguingly brilliant and tantalizingly menacing. Mann wisely limits the Doctor’s screen time to deliberately leave the audience wanting more. Judging by The Silence of the Lambs‘ success, his gambit worked.
Lecter wastes no time embroiling Graham in a deadly game of wits without ever leaving prison, making Manhunter the only Hannibal movie not to show its most infamous character out of his cell. By pushing Graham’s buttons, Lecter seeks to prove that hunting monsters has made the profiler a monster himself.
In support of Lecter’s theory, it’s revealed that Graham previously gunned down another serial killer he’d profiled. Manhunter‘s ending, and Graham’s violent outburst toward the sleazy reporter who leeched off his misery, led many critics to conclude that Lecter was right.
Mann’s script and visuals gainsay Lecter and the critics. Early in the movie, Graham and his son build enclosures to protect sea turtle nests from predators. Graham’s stated motive is his hope that all the baby turtles make it.
Stylistically – and remember that Manhunter uses style to convey meaning – scenes featuring the killer are tinted magenta and green to suggest perversion, while Graham’s scenes are colored a “natural” and “romantic” blue.
Besides these visual cues, Graham is clearly driven by a desire to protect the Tooth Fairy’s intended victims and even puts himself at great risk to do so. He may be obsessive and a bit foolhardy, but he’s not bloodthirsty like his quarry or Lecter.
If it seems like this review praises Manhunter‘s visuals too much, that’s a false perception because praising this photography too highly is impossible. The only other work that gives me a bigger 80s nostalgia buzz is Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and Manhunter fits almost as much sleek retro charm into a much more compact two-hour package.
Yeah, alright, the soundtrack is dated. But the only notes that come off as dissonant in hindsight are the songs with vocals. If Mann had gone with instrumental versions of the same tracks, he’d have been fine.
The look and the sound of Manhunter aren’t its only callbacks to a now shockingly different age. The saner social mores on display place Manhunter squarely in the, “They could never make this movie today,” category.
Graham is a devoted family man whose wife defers to his headship. The press and authorities openly mock the Tooth Fairy as a pervert. In an even bigger subversion of Current Year expectations, the FBI is shown solving crimes instead of causing them.
If you enjoy psychological thrillers and can get it used, give Manhunter a watch. It’s easily the second best Hannibal movie, and even surpasses its more famous sequel in many ways.
And if your taste in thrillers runs more toward the military side, read my mecha espionage hit Combat Frame XSeed.